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Building Blocks Virginia McGhee ’19 spent the summer at Stanford University building polymers in Bob Waymouth ’82’s chemistry lab.

Virginia McGhee ’19

“One of the best parts of working in a lab this large is the constant sharing of ideas. We all discuss the issues that are coming up in our projects and try to work together to come up with different solutions.

~ Virginia McGhee ’19

Virginia McGhee ’19, a chemistry major from Charleston, West Virginia, knew she wanted to pursue a career in science, maybe as a doctor, until she took her first chemistry class her freshman year of high school. “The second day of lab, I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Over her four years at W&L, she’s has tutored students in chemistry and done research with Professor Gregg Whitworth, assistant professor of biology. Her sophomore year, she helped start a mentoring program for STEM students. “I learn so much more about the subject matter from tutoring others,” she noted. “I feel like I have a completely different interaction with the material. I tell the other students that the key to success is repetition.”

Knowing she wanted to be a research professor, preferably at a small liberal arts college, she sought out an off-campus summer internship that would give her additional research experience. She landed a 10-week stint with Bob Waymouth ’82, Robert Eckles Swain Professor in Chemistry at Stanford University. She received funding through the Dr. G. Ashley Allen, ’65 Student Research Grant from the Chemistry Department and a Johnson Opportunity Grant.

Despite feeling “completely overwhelmed” the first couple of weeks, she quickly found her footing and was soon holding her own in the lab. “I had great preparation in my course and lab work at W&L, but I didn’t have the confidence those first few days,” she said. “I didn’t think I knew what I was doing until I successfully made my first monomer. Then I realized, ‘Oh, wait, I do know how to do this.’ My goal was not to screw anything up that was unrecoverable. It was a steep learning curve for me.”

Not only did McGhee not blow anything up, but she actually created a polymer that has never been reported in the scientific literature before. After a few kinks are worked out, she expects those results to be published, and she’ll have her name on the paper. “It’s a great resume-builder that will help me get into grad school,” she said.

While at Stanford, McGhee focused on building monomers (sub units of polymers) in combination with catalysts to create various polymer chains that will have a wide range of uses, such as a coating for gold nanoparticles to enhance cell-imaging techniques. “I don’t think I’d ever done a polymerization before this. I also hadn’t worked with catalysts to this extent. Previously, in organic lab, I had built simple units or had purified samples, but for this, I had to synthesize, purify and put everything together and hope it all worked.”

As well as gaining experience on a Schlenk line and with the glove box, McGhee attended weekly group presentations that gave her an overview of all the research projects underway in the Waymouth lab. “One of the best parts of working in a lab this large is the constant sharing of ideas. We all discuss the issues that are coming up in our projects and try to work together to come up with different solutions. It is really a team effort.”

It’s one she’d consider joining after graduating from W&L. “I can definitely see myself back in this lab for grad school,” McGhee said. But first, she has an honors thesis to work on.

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